Being in the Central Valley, fine art is hard to come by and “cultural experiences” consist of eating at taco trucks and buying rotten produce at the Mexican flea markets. But in the middle of crops and cow country, there’s a hidden jem in the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, where world class art exhibits are displayed in small town style. So I usually make a point of visiting whenever they have a new exhibit.
I’m almost always treated as the “college student who is most likely there because it’s a school requirement and not because she has a genuine interest in the exhibits” by the office staff. And no matter how many times I interact with staff (I have arranged cosplay photoshoots on the grounds in the past) or how often I frequent the exhibits as a patron, they never remember me and talk to me as though it’s my first time stepping foot on the property. But regardless, the museum with its main exhibit hall, Japanese garden and sprawling bonsai garden is a Central Valley treasure, and one that I highly recommend.
I was especially interested in the current exhibit: Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints, because I just finished reading a biography on Hokusai, the famous woodblock artist of the Tenpo Era. While there weren’t any Hokusai prints at the Hanford exhibit, there were a few by print designer and book illustrator Utagawa Kunisada, who worked closely with Hokusai on a number of his famous Manga sketches.
While I was excited to see the prints, (and even dragged my mum out to see them with me!), I will say it was a bit underwhelming. Having pored over high quality reproductions of woodblock art over the past few weeks, the originals behind glass frames looked… well, exactly the same. There was no discernible difference aside from the coarse, obviously aged papers the art was printed on. I would have been far more impressed if they had on display some of the original woodblocks themselves. And when it comes to studying ink prints, I’d much rather do so on a computer monitor or with a book in the privacy of my own home, instead of having a docent shadow me and trying to engage in conversation in broken English. Don’t get me wrong, the gals there are sugary sweet, it’s just that being such a small museum you will usually be the only guest there and that just gets awkward when you want to have a quiet escape into the realm of fine art and take time just looking or reading plaques.
Additionally, while I was eager to see the prints, I’m not really into the subject matter. After reading all about Hokusai’s work, which deals with the intricacies of the peasant class of feudal Japan (which I find fascinating – he was like the Japanese Pieter Bruegel), this exhibit dealt solely with “The Tale of Genji”, the famous book written over 1,000 years ago by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu – which, while fascinating, is not something I’m overly giddy about. Even though it does seem to dominate the 1830’s woodblock art era.
Here is the exhibit description from the Clark Center website:
“In the late 1820s, when the writer Ryūtei Tanehiko (1783–1842), the print designer and book illustrator Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) and the publisher Tsuruya Kiemon sat down together in Edo to plot the inaugural chapter of the serial novel A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji), it is doubtful that any one of them envisioned that their actions would generate a new genre in Japanese woodblock prints that would flourish until the turn of the century, Genjie (“Genji pictures”). During these sixty years, almost 1,300 original designs were created, of which many were very popular at their time of release.
The story of A Rustic Genji, set in fifteenth-century Japan, is in many respects drawn from the classic novel. It retells the amorous adventures of Mitsuuji—the counterpart to Genji’s Prince Genji—and is delivered in contemporary dialogue combined with kabuki theatrics. By 1838, and concurrent with the release of new Rustic Genji chapters, woodblock-print publishers and artists set out to exploit its success through the creation of individual-sheet prints that depicted the principal characters and the most exciting scenes. Under Kunisada’s lead the theme enjoyed enormous popularity and the craze that gave birth to these publications peaked in the 1850s and continued into the 1860s. Over eighty publishers had Genji designs on offer, and they engaged an increasing number of artists. Featured in this exhibition is a rich array of woodblock prints by many of Japan’s leading print artists.”
As I said, I found this exhibit to be more of a “quick peek” experience and bit underwhelming, but overall, it was a pleasant visit, as always. They’ve expanded their bonsai garden since I last visited, and it’s truly worth the trip to check out.